Laudato Sí, part 2 of a series

ChurchdarkWe hear it every year on Holy Saturday, sitting in the dark of the church before the Light comes, a litany of all those things made in the Beginning through the Word: the swarms of living creatures, the winged birds, the creeping things and the beasts of the earth, the fruit-bearing trees and vegetation, the stars and great lights of the sky.

The highest, holiest Liturgy of the year opens with a recounting of the natural world. Satis verborum. Enough said.

The fact that Pope Francis has to bring us back to some appreciation for the dignity and holiness of the physical world is an indication that we’ve really drifted. If we were farmers or ranchers, no one would have to tell us to care for our land and animals… our survival would depend on it. If we abused our land, we’d be hungry next season.  We’d be de facto environmentalists.

But technology has given us distance from production, and with that detachment comes risk: the danger that our consumption may be doing damage we won’t know about until it’s too late.  That’s the gist of the Pope’s wakeup call.


The special charism of Pope Francis

Pope Francis is modernity’s favorite Pope! His gentle, effervescent spirit has captivated even those previously quite hardened to the message of the Church. Granted, there are grave misunderstandings about what he’s said, but nevertheless… the Pope has an audience of unprecedented size and goodwill.

And history may say that he spent that currency wisely to begin a dialogue that’s meant to include the whole world: “In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”[1]  Not just Catholics, not just believers… everyone.

Given the current political and social polarities, it’s not a comfortable alliance. Greenpeace joining hands with Priests for Life? PETA sitting down with the Catholic League? That level of cooperation seems improbable at best. But as our liturgy teaches us, shouldn’t we, the Body of Christ, be the greatest environmentalists of all?


The Big Picture

The first part of my commentary on Laudato Sí was mainly concerned with “micro” ecological conversions: what we, as individuals, can do. That’s the easy part; those changes are under our personal control. But what about the larger solutions, the “macro” conversions that must somehow occur?

Here is where we may come to grief. Many of us break out in hives at the notion of international governing bodies, especially when considering the politics already evident in the United Nations and its offshoots.

Great prudence is required for this discussion. Combating a global problem may require global solutions, but how is that best to be instituted? And can there be global protocols without doing violence to some countries or groups? Our Catholic social principle of subsidiarity seems to require local solutions, but is this possible, given the magnitude of the issue? Or are local solutions, multiplied around the world, the only practical solution?  And is it even proper to enter these discussions?

The media commentary tends to focus on the most flammable issues in the encyclical, depending on how their agendas are served.  And on these issues, some Catholics are gnashing their teeth.  Therefore, it is essential for us to understand the attitude with which we are to receive this encyclical.


The Authority of Papal Encyclicals and Religious Assent

We can’t arrive at reasoned answers as long as there is confusion about the authority of the Pope’s teaching. If this encyclical does nothing more than clarify the doctrine of papal infallibility, it will have accomplished a noble purpose! Papal authority is one of the most misunderstood of all Catholic doctrines, both inside and outside the Church.

Papal infallibility is manifest only in very specific circumstances:

(1) when the Pope intends to define a doctrine

(2) by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority

(3) on a matter of faith and morals

(4) to be held by the whole Church,

then his pronouncement is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error.[2]

As Pope Benedict said, “The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible [only] in very rare situations.”[3]

The authority of papal encyclicals is undoubtedly great, but not, by definition, infallible. They may contain infallible pronouncements within them, but they are not infallible by virtue of being stated in the encyclical. When the Pope speaks in this mode, “without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner’… the faithful are to adhere to it with religious assent.”[4]

Religious assent calls for a spirit of “docility, teachable-ness or willingness to be instructed; docility is… ‘being prepared to admit that it is just possible that the Pope is right and I am wrong’.”[5]

On these issues of science, economics and politics, the pope is not speaking infallibly. On the contrary, it belongs to the laity “to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will… especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life.”[6] On these things, good Catholics may legitimately disagree, and indeed, it is desirable that they do. Pope Francis himself says so.  “A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place.”[7]

So if you believe solutions to environmental issues are better found at a local level than a global one, you are not going outside the bounds of faith. If you believe the jury is still out on human-induced global warming, you need not muffle your intellect or suspend research. “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”[8]

But the views of the Pope should be seriously, respectfully considered, with that docility of spirit that is willing to be taught. We can’t simply be guided by prior political preconceptions, even less by a vulturish protection of our goodies. We are called to “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.”[9] We have to consider the world beyond our balance sheet and think outside the box that got us to this point. Business as usual?  No!  We are called to a “bold cultural revolution” in our thinking![10]

With a clearer understanding of the authority of this encyclical and the demands it makes (and doesn’t make) on us, we can go forward to address the “macro” proposals made by the Pope. That will be the subject of the third part of this blog series.

In the meantime, “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”[11]



Sheryl Collmer lives and writes in Plano, Texas where she is looking for opportunities to reduce personal consumption and live more simply on God’s green earth.  She finds it a cheery endeavor, and has Pope Francis to thank for it.


[1] Laudato Sí (LS), paragraph 3

[2] Vatican Council I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, 1870

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, impromptu address to priests in Aosta, July 2005

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 892

[5] Basil Christopher Butler, OSB, Bishop of Westminster and Council Father at Vatican Council II, “Christian Teaching Authority and the Christian’s Response,” Doctrine and Life, 31 (1981), p.77-89

[6] CCC 898-899

[7] LS, 135

[8] LS, 61

[9] LS, 111

[10] LS, 114

[11] LS, 244